World Economic Forum Report on Global Risks Finds Top Five Global Risks are Environmental


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World Economic Forum Report on Global Risks Finds Top Five Global Risks are Environmental

By: George Colvin, CPG, CHMM

Published in February 2020 Focus on the Environment Newsletter

In January, the World Economic Forum released its 15th edition of the annual Global Risks Report 2020. The World Economic Forum is an international not-for-profit foundation of the world’s 1,000 leading companies established in 1971 for public-private cooperation.  Anyone who follows national and international news is familiar with The World Economic Forum annual meeting held each year in Davos Switzerland.  The annual Global Risk Report is produced in partnership with Marsh & McLennan and Zurich Insurance Group and provides results of the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Risk Perception Survey completed by approximately 800 members of the forum. 

Participants were asked to assess whether the risk associated with 40 current issues would increase or decrease on a global level in 2020 compared to 2019.  Categories of current issues included economic, environmental, geopolitical, societal, and technological.  Possible answers to survey questions ranged from “significantly decrease” to “significantly increase” on a scale of 1 to 5.

The survey defines global risk as an uncertain event or condition that, if it occurs, can cause significant negative impact for several countries or industries within the next ten years. For the first time in the 15-year history of the survey, the top five global risks in terms of likelihood of occurrence are all environmental related.  From most likely to least likely, the top five long-term global risks identified were:

  • Extreme weather
  • Climate action failure
  • Natural disasters
  • Biodiversity loss
  • Human-made environmental disasters.

Last year, three of the top five most likely global risks identified in the Global Risk Report were environmental, with the others being technological risk (cyberattacks. and data fraud or theft). Prior to 2011, the top five risks were all either economic, geopolitical, societal, or technological.

In terms of impact, the top five long-term global risks identified in the 2020 Global Risk Report fell within environmental, geopolitical, and societal categories.  From most impact to least impact, they are:

  • Climate action failure (environmental)
  • Weapons of mass destruction (geopolitical)
  • Biodiversity loss (environmental)
  • Extreme weather (environmental)
  • Water crises (societal).

2020 is the first year since 2017 that risk of Weapons of Mass Destruction was not identified as the number one global risk in terms of impact.

Appendix B of the report provides descriptive statistics and information concerning the profiles of the respondents.  Respondent organization type was predominantly business (38%), followed by academia (21%) and government (15%).  Expertise of respondents was primarily economics, followed by other (22%), technology (13%), society (13%), geopolitics (12%), and environment (9%).  Forty four percent of respondent were from Europe, followed by North America (17%), East Asia and the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, and South Asia (each at approximately 9%).


George H. Colvin is a hydrogeologist with over 30 years of consulting experience. Much of his experience has focused on RCRA Corrective Action, RCRA closure, and groundwater investigation, monitoring, and cleanup. He holds a BS in Geology from Ohio University and MS in geology and hydrology from Vanderbilt University. He is a Certified Professional Geologist with the American Institute of Professional Geologists, a registered geologist in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee, and a Certified Hazardous Materials Manager.